1984: Emergence of the FN

In 1956, the Poujadist movement won 11.5% of the vote and 51 seats, marking the first emergence of the far-right in the post-war era. The rapid death of the Poujadist in the wake of the crisis of May 1958 would leave the French far-right practically dead – save for the brief resurgence of 1962-1965 – until 1984 and the European elections.

The Front national (FN) had been founded in 1972, but until 1983 its support had remained derisory. In 1974, Jean-Marie Le Pen had won only 0.75% of the vote running in that year’s presidential election. Between 1973 and 1981, the FN’s emergence was checked a bit by the dissidence of the Ordre Nouveau faction (which created the PFN in 1973), which had been one of the two main founding factions on the FN in 1972 alongside Jean-Marie Le Pen’s conservative nationaux. The intense competition between the PFN’s Pascal Gauchon and Le Pen in 1981 had prevented either of them from running in that year’s election. In the 1982 cantonal elections, the far-right won only 0.2% of the vote, but in four cantons the FN obtained pretty spectacular results. Similarly, in the 1983 municipal elections, the far-right nationally did very poorly but Le Pen won over 11% running in Paris. The turning point for the FN, the date at which the FN as a serious electoral force was born, was the September 1983 municipal by-election in Dreux, a working-class city in Eure-et-Loir. Jean-Pierre Stirbois’ list won 16.7% of the vote in the first round, and merged his list with that of the parliamentary right which would eventually win the election. At this point, national media started paying serious attention to the FN and Le Pen’s media presence increased significantly between 1983 and the June 17, 1984 European elections. In that election, the FN won 10.95%, basically tying the Communist Party which was a big deal.

European elections have since 1999 been pretty mediocre for the far-right, as a lot of its traditional protest-vote electorate usually doesn’t bother to vote. However, European elections are very much tailor-made for the FN, or at least they were before people stopped caring. The electoral system, list PR in a national constituency, allowed parties such as the FN with a weak grassroots implantation and activist network to gain a national presence through the leadership of a particularly charismatic leader like as Le Pen. The European elections have traditionally been low-turnout affairs and stakes have been pretty low, allowing voters to vote as they wish – often by expressing discontent with the government and/or main opposition.

The rapid disillusion which followed Mitterrand’s election in 1981; a period which was marked by an economic crisis, economic changes and rising unemployment; played a crucial role in the emergence of the FN. The traditional misconception is that the FN immediately took votes from the left, and particularly the PCF whose decline by this point was marked and unabated. The reality is not that simple, especially in 1984. In its first incarnation, in 1984, the FN was very much on the right in terms of its electorate.

% vote for the FN by legislative constituency (1978-1986 redistricting)

Parties usually have pretty stable geographic bases of strength. Their strength in particular areas varies over times, and over a longer period of time certain regions trend away or towards that party but it is generally a long-term process over ten years or so. It is pretty rare for one party’s stronghold in one election to be a terre de mission (weak zone) for it five years later. The FN’s electoral implantation east of the famous Le Havre-Valence-Perpignan line is stable, but the FN’s electorate jumps around a whole lot from one election to another.

The Mediterranean coast has been a constant for the FN and the French far-right since 1962. It has always been strong there, and Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour had won his best results along the Mediterranean and in the Garonne valley in 1965, which had been the region most opposed to the Évian accords in 1962. Jean-Marie Le Pen had done best there in 1974. The main factor at play here is the pied-noir factor. The pieds-noirs were the French citizens who lived in French Algeria (or North Africa) until Algerian independence and who were shipped back to France en masse following Algeria’s independence in 1962. They settled largely in lower-income or lower middle-class neighborhoods along the Mediterranean coast, from Menton to Perpignan, or in the Garonne river valley from Bordeaux to Castres. The pieds-noirs strongly supported French Algeria and resented the “abandonment” of Algeria by de Gaulle in 1962. The pieds-noirs were so viscerally anti-Gaullist, for example, that Tixier-Vignancour actually supported Mitterrand over Charles de Gaulle in the 1965 runoff. The pieds-noirs felt alienated from the power elites, both because of 1962 and because they were largely “abandoned” and shunned once they settled in France.

The other factor in this region (at least in 1984) was North African immigration. One can easily imagine what kind of cocktail comes out of a mix of pieds-noirs – colonialist in their mindset – and North African immigrants. It is a mix perfect for the emergence of a strong FN vote.

There is a strong correlation, at the departmental level, between a high percentage of immigrants (or foreign-born) and a strong FN vote. Unlike Poujadism in 1956, which was the last stand of a traditional and rural France opposed to urbanization and rapid industrialization, the FN vote by 1984 and to this day is concentrated in the most urbanized and industrialized regions of France – that is – basically – the east of the country. These are regions which have attracted the most immigrants, mostly from North Africa, since the 1950. The highest proportion of immigrants are found in the industrial centers of the Parisian basin, Alsace-Lorraine, Rhône-Alpes (Lyon, Grenoble, Savoie) and the Mediterranean coast. The industrial crisis of the 1980s, especially pronounced in 1984, marked a certain popular rejection of immigration which had been increasing since the 1970s. In a context of high unemployment, the feeling that North African immigrants are unnecessary elements who jobs away from the locals is pretty pronounced. It is a battle between a native white population for whom the relative prosperity and good life of the trente glorieuses is past, and an immigrant population which is poorly integrated in French society and who struggle to find employment themselves.

The 1980s marked a period of socio-economic problems including unemployment, poor immigrant integration, urban decay, youth disillusion, poverty and criminality. For FN voters, the two variables of criminality and immigration are closely correlated to one another. Basically put, they hold that immigrants are the causes of criminality and contribute in large part to the insecurity of their neighborhoods. At a departmental level, it is certainly true that the map of immigration is similar to that of criminality as they are both predominantly urban and eastern. Whether it is a fair comparison or not is one’s own political view.

At a departmental level, you would probably find a strong correlation between high immigrant populations and strong FN vote. One of the reasons why I dislike simplistic analyses at a departmental level is that departments are large regions which include a number of different socio-economic realities. If you were to do an analysis comparing immigrants and FN vote at a cantonal level, you would a much weaker correlation. Simply put, the FN vote – especially in 1984 – was not concentrated in areas with large immigrant populations. Rather, similar to what can be seen with the BNP in places such as London, the far-right vote is strongest in peripheral areas bordering neighborhoods with large immigrant populations. It is perhaps not, in most cases, living side-by-side to North African immigrants but rather a fear of immigration and insecurity which causes a strong FN presence in one area. In most cases, these peripheral neighborhoods are lower middle-class suburban areas.

The above is a pretty broad explanation of the reasons for the FN vote, not only in 1984 but even today. It is certainly pretty interesting, but we’re making some broad generalizations on the type of voter the FN attracts and we are treating the FN electorate in 1984 as broadly equal to the FN electorate in 2007 or 2011.

The FN vote in 1984 was heavily right-wing in its origin. The traditional view is that the FN’s immediate success in 1983-1984 was caused by left-wing voters, especially former PCF voters. It might be true to an extent, and the left-wing portion of the FN electorate becomes increasingly larger after 1984. But in 1984, the FN attracted voters who had voted (if they had voted to begin with) for Giscard or Chirac in 1981, not Mitterrand. Some of this can be explained by the personality of the RPR-UDF’s list top candidate, Simone Veil. For the more conservative voters of the French right, the centrist, pro-European, viscerally anti-far right and socially liberal Veil was dangerously close to being a left-wing. The right had been radicalized somewhat by the participation of the PCF in the Mauroy government starting in May 1981, and in the international arena tensions were reaching new highs between the west and the Soviet bloc. It was not unusual for mainstream right-wing politicians, largely from the RPR, to talk about the “socialo-communist” threat which is nowadays something which only Le Pen Sr. says when he’s angry. At another level, the FN in its founding years still appealed to a type of more well-off bourgeois ultra-conservative voter who was traditionalist, socially conservative and not too fond of North Africans.

We see the right-wing nature of the FN’s electorate in 1984 by looking at a few particular constituencies. In Marseille, it did best (23-26%) in the downtown core, averagely well-off. It did almost as well (22.6%) in southern Marseille, which is very affluent, but did comparatively poorer (19.5% ) in northern Marseille, working-class and heavily left-wing. On the other hand, the FN vote is now far weaker in downtown and southern Marseille than in northern Marseille, which has become one of the FN’s strongholds. In the Greater Lyon, the FN’s electorate was not heavily marked in favour of any particular social class – it won 16.7% in Vénissieux, 16.8% in Villeurbanne and 18.5% in Vaulx-en-Velin/Meyzieu, but it is particularly interesting to note that it won 17.3% in the very affluent northern suburbs of Lyon (Caluire, Mont-d’Or). Compared to 2007 (the FN’s result in 1984 and 2007 was about equal – some 0.6% better in 1984), Le Pen won only 7.6% in Caluire. In the city of Lyon proper, the FN’s best showing was in a downtown constituency spanning parts of the 3rd and 7th arrondissements (notably including the very diverse Guillotière neigborhood), where it won 19.1%. The next two strongest results for Le Pen’s party was 17.8% in a constituency including (among others) the very bourgeois 6th and 16.5% in a constituency including (again among others) the very bourgeois 2nd. In Lille, the FN won 18.7% in a constituency including parts of working-class Tourcoing and the very bourgeois Marcq-en-Barœul. It is hard to say if the FN vote came heavily from Marcq or from Tourcoing, but a good chunk of it must still have come from the affluent Marcq, where Le Pen won only 8.6% in 2007. Yet again, the FN also did well in areas which are not at all bourgeois – 17.1% in Roubaix.

The FN’s support in Paris in 1984 is particularly interesting in that it forms some sort of peripheral belt extending from the Bois de Boulogne to Belleville and Charonne. In doing so, it breaks a particularly rigid political and social wall which has always divided the bourgeois west from the working-class east. The FN did well in working-class constituencies in the east (16-18%) but also did particularly well in the very affluent west: 16-17% in the 16th (the epitome of wealthy bourgeoisie), 19% in the 8th, 15.5% in the 7th, 16.8-17% in the 17th. In Neuilly, the FN won 17.6%, its best showing in the Hauts-de-Seine. The concentration of the far-right vote in Paris proper has jumped around, in 1995 it was particularly eastern, more mixed in 2002 and interestingly rather western in 2010. But in 2007, the FN did not do best in the affluent areas: 5% in Neuilly, 4% in the 16th and 8th and so forth.

The most interesting aspect of the FN vote in 1984 when compared to the FN vote in 2007 (which was, remember, about the same in percentage terms as 1984) is its heavily urban concentration. In 1984, besides the Mediterranean coast (pretty urbanized on its own terms), the other main base for the FN was the Parisian basin: 15.3% in Paris, 14.2% in the Hauts-de-Seine, 16% in Seine-Saint-Denis, 15% in the Val-d’Oise, 14.4% in the Yvelines, 14.6% in Seine-et-Marne, 13.9% in the Val-de-Marne and 12.4% in Essonne. These results, I didn’t check, are probably the FN’s record highs in most of these departments. The map also shows pretty well the FN’s very strong showings in other urban areas, notably Lyon and Marseille.

When looking at a map of the evolution of the FN between 1984 and 2007, an interesting outer ring of gains (FN stronger in 2007) surrounds almost perfectly the Parisian basin, which is on the contrary where the FN lost the most between 1984 and 2007. The FN receded by a full 10.7% in Paris, 8.6% in the Hauts-de-Seine, 6.9% in the 9-3 and 7% in the Yvelines. On the other hand, the FN gained between 4.4% and 4.6% in the Orne, Sarthe, Loir-et-Cher and Indre, and gained even more in the Aube (+5.5%), Haute-Marne (+6.4%), Aisne (+7.6%) and Somme (+4.6%).

One of the most interesting aspects of the FN vote between around 1984-1988 and 2007 is that it almost completely abandoned the urban areas and settled in more rural or exurban area. The FN in 1984 did best in areas which were at most 15-30 minutes away from the urban core (if they were not in the urban core itself!). In 2007, the FN did best in areas which are at least 1.5-2 hours away from the urban core (this is especially true in the Parisian Basin).

In 1984, the FN vote was largely urban or inner suburban. In 2007, the FN vote was largely rural or exurban (périurbain). In core urban areas, the FN lost over 10-15% of the vote between 1984 and 2007. On the other hand, in rural and exurban areas, the FN gained about the same amount between 1984 and 2007. Comparing in quick succession the FN’s map in the 1980s (84, 86, 88) with 1995, 2002 and 2007 the most striking aspect is the rapid dissolution of FN support in large urban areas such as Paris or Lyon (Marseille is a bit of an exception).

Two major factors can explain this evolution: white flight and socio-demographic changes. White flight is pretty obvious: lower-income residents have tended to move away from old neighborhoods which are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic. A factor closely related to the most important one, socio-demographic changes. Increasing property prices (especially in the Greater Paris) have chased low-income and lower middle-class inhabitants further and further away from the urban core and into the urban fringe into new exurbs. Urban and even inner suburban populations have been renewed by younger, more affluent professionals who in some cases might maintain the political orientation of their neighborhood despite the rapid demographic changes (this is the case in eastern Paris). Formerly working-class areas in eastern Paris or even old working-class suburbs such as Montreuil or Pantin have seen rapid demographic changes with the rise of a younger, affluent professional class which is, for obvious reasons, far less likely to vote FN. A look at a demographic map, especially in the Parisian region, confirms this: the urban cores and inner suburban areas have largely become well-educated, affluent and populated by professionals or cadres while lower-income categories are now more numerous in exurban areas. The FN certainly maintains a sizable vote in older (inner) suburbs in the 9-3 or Val-d’Oise which have remained largely low-income or with large immigrant populations (or close to those areas), but it is nowhere near as impressive a base as in 1984.

To confirm the FN vote in 1984 as being largely urban or suburban, it is interesting to distinguish the constituencies where the FN vote was below average and where it was above average. It was above average in all but four constituencies of the Île-de-France region (Paris’ 5th arrondissement, Ivry-sur-Seine, Arcueil-Cachan and Les Ulis-Orsay). The FN’s strength extended into surrounding departments, which were already suburban by 1984 or had large cities with immigrant populations (Oise, Vexin, Dreux, Gien, Sens). In the north, it was heavily concentrated in and around Lille, in Alsace is was centered around Strasbourg and Mulhouse and in the southeast it was concentrated around Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Toulon and Nice).

The FN vote in 1984 was largely a homogeneously conservative white-collar and shopkeepers vote, while in 2007 the FN was largely a heterogeneous old white working-class and lower-income exurbanite vote. In 1984, the FN’s appeal to traditional working-class voters was limited. It did appeal to some working-class locales, but predominantly those which were Catholic and right-wing (Cluses, Forbach, Freyming). What is perhaps the best proof to shoot down claims that the FN ‘stole’ votes from the left in 1984 is the FN’s poor results in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ mining bassin. 5% in Liévin, 7% in Lens, 6.3% in Marchiennes, 7% in Denain, 4.5% in Bruay or 6.2% in Béthune. The FN interestingly won 9.2% in Hénin, but it is still below average. Even in other left-wing working-class areas the FN’s results were nothing to boast: 7% in Dunkerque, 7.8% in Calais, 7.2% in Dieppe or 8.3% in Rouen’s industrial hinterland. In Le Havre, the FN did best (10.9%) in the more conservative 6th constituency which included the posh Ste-Adresse than in the heavily left-wing 7th which included the PCF stronghold of Gonfreville-l’Orcher. In 2007, however, Le Pen won 13.4% in Gonfreville’s constituency (which also includes parts of Le Havre, Bolbec and Saint-Romain-de-Colbosc) and 12.5% in working-class northern Le Havre while only 8.9% in the posher southern Le Havre and Ste-Adresse constituency.

This left-wing working-class vote did not abandon the left in 1984. It would only do so later, starting in 1986 and reaching a peak in 1995 and 2002. It would take more disillusion with the left in power, the evolution of the left’s demographic bases and further years of unemployment and industrial decline for this vote to fall into the FN’s arms. The department where the FN gained the most between 1984 and 2007 was the Pas-de-Calais, where Le Pen’s 2007 performance was 9.35% above the FN’s result in 1984.

Rural areas had not been particularly favourable to the FN in 1984, even in eastern France. The FN certainly did well, but its performances in the heart of rural Alsace, Champagne and Bourgogne was not particularly impressive. Clearly, the FN’s vote in 1984 was concentrated heavily in urban and suburban areas, both wealthier ones and more lower middle-class ones; areas which had been touched first hand by unemployment, immigration and criminality. The FN’s growth in rural areas would begin in 1986, when a Poujadist-like lower-income rural conservative electorate would begin voting for the FN in places like rural Alsace.

For certain parties, studying their geographic bases an election after another quickly becomes redundant as the same strongholds remain strongholds and the same weak spots remain weak spots. However, in the FN’s case, it is rarely redundant to do so. Its geographic implantation may appear to be unchanging (and in part it is), but in the details it is fascinating to observe how the FN’s electorate jumps around from one election to another. In 1984 and 2007, although polling the same percentage, the FN’s base in 1984 has little to do with its rock-ribbed presidential electorate of 2007.

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Posted on December 23, 2011, in Far-Right (FN etc), Fifth Republic (1958-), Maps. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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